UConn great Diana Taurasi on missing Sue Bird at USA Basketball camp: ‘Little bit strange’

Photo of Mike Anthony

At 4 p.m. on the dot Tuesday afternoon, as scheduled, UConn women's basketball legend Diana Taurasi took a seat in front of a USA Basketball backdrop and stared into the camera with a signature gigantic smile.

Taurasi, 40, is still going strong at every elite level of basketball.

But for the first time in 18 years, Sue Bird was not sharing the backcourt and wasn’t within earshot as members of the U.S. women's national team gathered for a four-day minicamp in Minneapolis.

“Sue and I pretty much talk every single day, whether it's a text or something stupid someone said and she sends it to me and we laugh over that,” said Taurasi, who teamed with Bird, her former UConn teammate, to win five Olympic gold medals. “We're always communicating. It was weird. It was strange getting here and not having Sue. Usually right now we're having coffee and talking for about three hours, then we'd have dinner and we'd have another coffee and talk for another two hours. When your best friend is not on the team anymore, it is a little bit strange. I'll have to find someone else to bug.”

Taurasi also is one of the few public figures to have been in constant contact with longtime Phoenix Mercury teammate Brittney Griner, who decided not to participate in this week’s Team USA minicamp. Griner was detained in Russia on drug charges in February 2022 and sentenced to nine years in prison, but was returned to the U.S. as part of a prisoner exchange that made international headlines in November.

“It was a situation that I thought wasn't going to happen,” Taurasi said. “I'm not a person that lives in this fake world of optimism. I knew how serious everything was. I lived in Russia for 10 years. I know how serious these things are there. ... I really thought it was going to be a long time before I got to see my friend again. Every single day, we suffered and hoped that she would be back. Not until I saw her did I really believe it. Just to see her smile, just to see her free, was really emotional for everyone.

"And we knew at the same time, even as she got into that plane and we got to Phoenix, there was going to be a whole new set of challenges, a whole new reality, a whole new way of living life for BG. All I can say is that every day she's in a great place. She's so thankful to be home. She has so much admiration for all the people who pushed and helped and made sure that we got her home. It's a work in progress but it's just amazing to see her at home with her friends and family. The one thing that has never left BG is the ability to make people happy, and to make them smile. I'm just so glad she's home with her family and her friends.”

Taurasi and Griner, both former No. 1 draft picks, have been teammates with the Mercury since 2013. They won Olympic gold together in 2016 (under Geno Auriemma) and again in Tokyo (under Dawn Staley).

“We just have a special relationship where we can connect on a different level, which is, for both of us, really nice,” Taurasi said. “I've never had a friend go through this. So I think for everyone involved, it's a situation that's very particular and very strange. But BG always finds a way to find lightness in everything. Yeah, we've had probably too many jokes that I can't share, too many stories that I can't share. But just happy she's home. We talk all the time.

“We're both in Phoenix. We both live there full time. So we've hooked up a couple times. We chat on the phone, text. This morning, she texted me, 'How's camp going?' She wants to be part of this like no one else. So she'll get there eventually. She'll find her footing.”

Bird retired after the 2022 WNBA season. Taurasi, who turns 41 in June and will be 42 before the 2024 Paris Olympics, shows no eagerness to walk away no matter how difficult the preparation for games and seasons has become.

“As I look at you guys, I know some of us are a little bit on the older side,” Taurasi said to a Zoom media audience. “It's a daily grind. It's something I've focused my whole life on, to be as healthy as I can be, to be on the court, to make sure I'm available to my kids and my family. It's been something that the last four or five years has really consumed my life, to do everything possible in order to be on the court. I continue to do that now. It's something that I find as a challenge and I like to do it. And we'll go from there.”

Taurasi won three consecutive NCAA championships at UConn before going on to become the WNBA’s all-time leading scorer.

“Since I stopped playing in Russia [in 2017], I've had to reorganize the way I look at my basketball career,” Taurasi said. “When you're playing year-round you're kind of just always in shape and you're just in that constant going from team to team, always being in shape. And when you settle down and you just play the WNBA, the offseason is long. You really have to plan it out and see the times where you can really push yourself, and times when you have to look in the mirror and say, 'I need to backtrack a little bit.' So it's an ongoing journey. It's a great process. You learn a lot about yourself and how committed you are. Because when you're not on a team, you could easily not do it. You could easily just go to happy hour instead.”

Taurasi has not yet signed a contract for the 2023 season.

“I expect to,” she said. “That's something I've said for a long time, that finishing my career in Phoenix is something I have a lot of respect for and something that I want to do. But you never know what can happen in this world, right? As we've seen in the last couple of weeks, anything can happen.”

Asked if she would take less money to create cap flexibility for the Mercury, Taurasi said, “Yeah, I don't know about that. I'm not one to take less money. I don't know about you guys.”

Taurasi said he recently met Mat Ishbia, new owner of the Mercury and the NBA’s Phoenix Suns. She averaged 16.7 points last season, her 18th with the Mercury.

“Last season, for a lot of reasons, nor here or there, I didn't feel like I brought the best version of myself,” Taurasi said. “I feel like there were glimpses of days where I was like, oh, this is still pretty easy. And there were days where I was like, I'd rather be somewhere else. This is just another challenge for me, approaching this season with a different mindset. I'm excited about that.”

Taurasi famously shouted into the TV cameras, “See you in Paris!” after winning Gold with Team USA in Tokyo. The Paris Olympics are July/August of 2024.

“USA Basketball is a very special organization,” Taurasi said. “I've been a part of it since 1998 when I started playing under-18's. I played through college. It's been a part of my basketball career as much as the WNBA, as much as playing overseas. It's something that I've always taken great respect in playing. It's always been a big honor. And any time I'm asked to a camp, I'll drop everything to try to come if I'm physically ready, and ready to go.”

mike.anthony@hearstmediact.com; @ManthonyHearst